Letters influence the way we think

Tuesday was a big day for me.

It wasn’t a special family celebration. Or a holiday. There were no major moments in history to recall. No presents were wrapped or given.

Still, it was a red-letter day for me and other word junkies around the nation. On Tuesday, Merriam-Webster, the authority on all things word and spelling related, released its 2015 word of the year.

It’s a simple word. Well, actually, it’s not really a word. Just three letters. I. S. M.

When put together, ism has so much meaning.

Ism can trace its heritage all the way back to Ancient Greece. It turns verbs into nouns, or actions into philosophies, if you wish.

But more than just that, ism can be used as a way to identify a religious belief or practice, a prejudice based on a specific attribute, a strict adherence to a system, a condition based on the excess of something or to describe a characteristic or trait.

For something so simple, it can do so much.

In fact, the company says there are 2,733 English words ending in ism in its unabridged dictionary. And that more than likely doesn’t include the many words people make up to suit the situation.

Merriam-Webster said this suffix is the word of the year “because a small group of words that share this three-letter ending triggered both high volume and significant year-over-year increase in lookups” on its online dictionary.

These words are socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism and terrorism.

According to Peter Sokolowski, editor at large of the Springfield, Mass.-based company, “We had a lot on our minds this year. It’s a serious year. These are words of ideas and practices.”

Joining the seven “isms” as the most looked up words on the site are marriage, hypocrite, respect, inspiration and minion.

I am especially fond of that last word, and for the same reason it was so popular: those cute overall-wearing yellow cartoon characters that bring joy and laughter, mayhem and mishap as they try to serve their master.

Key events that took place in 2015 triggered hundreds to look up these words.

Consider inspiration, which had a 65 percent increase in interest this year, especially in the latter part of 2015. Merriam-Webster attributes this to events such as Carly Simon’s admission that Warren Beatty was a thinly veiled inspiration for her hit “You’re So Vain” and an obituary for Melvin Williams that said he was the inspiration for “The Wire.”

Hypocrite became especially popular when news of Josh Duggar’s account on Ashley Madison, a website for those looking to cheat on their spouses, came to light. After having said that he and his wife saved their first kiss for until after they were married, his confession said he was the “biggest hypocrite ever.” Yep, the definition fits.

Merriam-Webster can’t find a real source for the increased interest in respect. It did note that the majority of times people looked up the word it was from mobile sources. They speculated that it might be related to isms such as feminism and racism and part of the overall conversation.

Marriage, which seems pretty basic, was sent to the top of the list after the Supreme Court’s June ruling that two people of the same sex can marry. The wordsmiths reported a 57 percent increase in interest in that word.

That leaves me puzzled, as does the popularity of respect — though both play an important role in my life.

Merriam-Webster is not the only firm to select a word of the year. Dictionary.com chose identity, and surprisingly Oxford Dictionaries chose an emoji — a picture of a face with tears of joy.

Although the announcement of the word of the year is big news, I doubt it will have much impact in my life. Seriously, I view it all with a little bit of skepticism.

— Hali Bernstein Saylor is editor of the Boulder City Review. She can be reached at hsaylor@bouldercityreview.com or at 702-586-9523. Follow @HalisComment on Twitter.

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